The Bucs' offseason could be primarily characterised by one motive: fixing the secondary. Goldson, Revis, re-structuring Wright, drafting Banks - all moves driven by having the worst secondary in the NFL in 2012, and one of the worst in football history. Arguably no game better epitomises just how badly needed these moves were than the Week 2 match up against the then-defending Super Bowl champion Giants. But for all that the fourth quarter in total represented a collapse of Raheemian proportions (which, by the way, I'm advocating as a new adjective all Bucs fans should use to describe any huge collapse), is there one play which, more than any other, sealed the fate of the game? To try and decide, let's look at the View from the Crow's Nest.
Week 2: Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ New York Giants, 16/9/12
I'm sure this game is etched, horribly and excruciatingly, in the minds of all Bucs fans, so I won't go into too much painful detail. In brief: coming off an opening game victory, the Bucs travelled to the Giants, coming off 10 days rest and motivated by being the first defending champions to lose the big Thursday night kickoff game. The Bucs handled themselves relatively well early, in particular by capitalising on Eli Manning's three interceptions, scoring touchdowns on ensuing drives following the first two picks, and the third being returned to the house by Eric Wright in highlight-reel fashion. The third quarter, though, saw the Bucs splutter, picking up only a field goal on the opening drive of the half. In fact, the Bucs only had two more possessions in the third quarter: the next possession ended after two runs saw Tampa Bay in a 3rd & 1 situation, but with the playclock running down almost to :00, the Bucs rushed to get the ball off, with Freeman handing off to Doug Martin on a draw that lost a yard. I won't go into the significance of that one play now, but it's going to shed a light on a situation that will be brought up when I break down the key play of Week 3.
The final possession of the quarter began with one of the most blatant hits to the head of a defenseless receiver you will ever see - but with the replacement refs still embarrassing the league at this point in time, it wasn't called, putting the Bucs at 2nd & 10; the Giants rushed, and with pressure in his face, Freeman threw the ball without setting his feet properly, sailing over the head of Sammie Stroughter and into the hands of Corey Webster, giving New York possession less than a minute before the fourth quarter.
Trailing by eleven points, beginning the quarter on 2nd & 2, the last 15 minutes of the game is probably best summed up by this cartoon from Dave Rappoccio's excellent NFL-orientated webcomic, The Draw Play. Manning's 243 fourth quarter yardage showed just how bad this secondary was, and there's one play that not only ultimately set the Bucs up to lose the game, but is also hugely demonstrative both in terms of what did not work for this defense in 2012, and in terms of illustrating how having Darrelle Revis back then would have turned what we saw far too often - a long completion off the back of a complex blitz that never got home - into a sure sack.
First, though, I have to say that it was a hard choice to decide which play was the key play. With how awful the secondary was, the best 'defense' the Bucs could have played was a more consistent offense, one which could have sustained a drive and put some points on the board; as a result, I was toying with making the 'key play' for Week 2 actually a key possession.
While I ended up going with another play, I do think it's a series that needs to be mentioned. The Bucs' second series of the quarter began at their 28-yard line with 6:42 left on the clock. The Giants had just scored, and pulled off a successful two-point conversion, taking the score to 27-27. A first down run but the Bucs at 2nd & 6; what followed was an initially baffling throws by Freeman that ultimately forced the Bucs to punt less than a minute after they got the ball. The first throw is the biggest head scratcher, at least at first: Freeman had plenty of time in the pocket, scanned the field and then threw the ball towards Vincent Jackson - or at least, Jackson was the nearest receiver to the ball as it sailed out of bounds.
This simply cannot be a case of accuracy - this was nowhere near the guy. This is more an illustration of one of the lines we've been hearing a lot this offseason, that Freeman will be better with a second year in Sullivan's system. It's been widely assumed (and I'm very sure I've read somewhere it's been admitted by the Bucs staff) that Sullivan's system has been based on, or at least heavily influenced by, Kevin Gilbride's offense. We will see in the key play that Gilbride's offense uses plenty of reads and keys on routes - a receiver will not always be given a fixed route to run, but rather has several options depending on the coverage and how the corner plays them.
There have been suggestions that Sully's similarly uses reads and keys; these type of offenses are not as easy to install as those with fixed routes, as neither quarterback nor receivers know what routes they are running until after the snap. Success in this type of offense demands that both QB and receiver read the coverage and keys correctly - when you hear about a passer and receiver being 'on the same page' (or not on the same page), typically this is what that phrase refers to.
As you can see, Jackson continues running up field while the ball (circled) is thrown out of bounds far behind him
The only explanation that I can possibly make for just how away from Jackson this ball was thrown is that Freeman and Jackson made different reads on the same key: the read Freeman made seems to have suggested that the key dictated Jackson run some sort of hook out or comeback route, or possibly an out. On the other hand, Jackson clearly read the key to mean he should continue running up the seam. Impossible to say who was right or wrong without having a copy of Sullivan's playbook, but it is definitely clear that the two were not on the same page. The following 3rd & 6 play was another incomplete pass to Jackson, though in this case it was just either poor accuracy or poor timing by Josh, as the ball was behind V-Jax. Following the punt, the Giants marched back down the field to take the lead.
Apologies for that tangent, but I think that's a very important play not only for the clues it offers about Sullivan's offense, but also for illustrating the sort of frustrations and miscues that comes from new players in an unfamiliar system. It also will offer a direct comparison to a situation when quarterback and receiver are on the same page - and how it can win a team a game.
The Bucs got the ball back with just under four minutes left in the quarter, and managed to score a touchdown on the final play before the two-minute warning to put the score level. The Giants' final drive (not including that kneel-down) began on their 20-yard line, 1:48 on the clock. A 24-yard completion put them just before the half-way line, but a false start penalty on Sean Locklear put them at 1st & 15 at their 39, 1:28 left in the game. What followed was the key play of Week 2.
(You can see a brief clip of the play here at 2:10 minutes in)
Formation: Gun Spread-Right Strong (QB in shotgun, spread receivers with the TE on the right, RB lined up on the strongside of the QB)
Personnel: LT, #65 William Beatty; LT, #77 Kevin Boothe; C, #64 David Baas; RG, #76 Chris Snee; RT, #75 Sean Locklear; QB, #10 Eli Manning; RB, #35 Andre Brown; WR, #13 Ramses Barden; WR, #80 Victor Cruz; TE, #85 Martellus Bennett; WR, #88 Hakeem Nicks
Formation: 4-1-6 Dime
Personnel: RDE, #94 Adrian Clayborn; RDT, #71 Michael Bennett; LDT, #93 Gerald McCoy; LDE, #56 Dekoda Watson; LB, #54 Lavonte David; CB, #33 Brandon McDonald; CB, #21 Eric Wright; CB, #20 Ronde Barber; CB, #25 Aqib Talib; SS, #24 Mark Barron; FS, #43 Ahmad Black
Taking on board some suggestions from the previous entry in the series, I'm using playbook designing software instead of a whiteboard. Giants are in circles (except for the center), Bucs are in diamonds. Ignore the yardage markings too, they come as standard and couldn't be changed to reflect where the play actually took place on the field. Please note that you can enlarge any of the pictures by clicking on them.
This play is set up very similarly to the play I broke down for Week 1, with both teams even in the same formation - with a few exception. Offensively, the TE is lined up traditionally, tight to the line and in a three-point stance. Initially, the Bucs line up in a four-man front, though in the less traditional 'under' front (where the strongside tackle is the 1-tech and the weakside the 3-tech), with Ronde Barber just behind the LOS. On this occasion, Wright covers the slot and McDonald lines up on the outside.
This formation, however, doesn't last long; while the Bucs line up like this:
They soon shift to this:
With the exception of Watson, who remains at wide-9, everyone else changes their position. Clayborn pops out of his stance, loops round and stands on the LOS next to McCoy (who has shifted over the center to a 0-tech alignment), as if he were a linebacker showing blitz against the strongside 'A' gap. Behind McCoy is Ronde Barber likewise showing blitz, having vacated his spot over the right tackle. Into that cap comes Mark Barron from his initial safety spot, lining up on the LOS just inside of the tight end, while Lavonte David creeps down onto the line heads-up on the left guard. Finally, Bennett shifts all the way out from 3-tech to a wide-5 alignment. This now presents a much more different look than the previous week's blitz, with all the blitzers lined up pretty much on the line of scrimmage. The defense is now lined up like this:
Rush & Blocking
As with last week, I'll deal with the rush and blocking separately from the routes and coverage. To make it a little clearer, the Giants players' moves are in blue, and the Bucs players' moves are in red, as you'd expect (apologies for the difference in quality, the rush & blocking lines were done in the software, but the letters were amateurishly drawn over the top in MSPaint).
We begin at point 'A' - Michael Bennett. Lined up at wide-5, significantly outside the tackle, you might expect an outside rush, and Bennett initially appears to do so, causing Beatty to widen out. Instead, Bennett turns inside and straight at Beatty, using strength and technique to bullrush Beatty and drive him backwards (another reminder of just what a player we let walk in free agency). Beatty is put 'on skates' (being bullrushed backwards without being able to regain control) - at least, until Andre Brown sees what is happening. Brown rushes across the formation and into Beatty's back.
This is enough to stop Bennett's momentum, and the two Giants are able to stop him making any further in roads. This point is of particular interest: had Brown not come in to help Beatty, Bennett was completely dominating the tackle and was well on his way to driving him into Manning - but there was a knock-on effect too; by drawing Brown away, Bennett opened up something else across the formation that, in other circumstances, could have had a huge effect on the final result.
Point 'B' marks out the start of a chain reaction along the O-line, one which shows the problem (in my opinion) of all these stunts and loops. McCoy attacks the weakside 'B' gap, between Boothe and Baas; the two double team on McCoy, with Baas shunting the DT over towards the guard, before peeling off to protect his strongside gap. Baas's actions - a double team with an emphasis of 'passing along' the defender to the weakside lineman before peeling off to protect the strongside gap - gets repeated all the way across the line.
To me, this suggests some of the rules that are built in to the specific pass-protection scheme deployed on this play (all blocking schemes are designed with inherent rules for the linemen to follow). The key rule on this play seems to be a 'in-out' check - the lineman's first responsibility is to check their inside gap (i.e. towards the center) first, and then their outside gap, as we will see later. In the center's case, as obviously neither 'A' gap is the 'inside to him, the presiding rule is always to take the 'most dangerous man' first - which will almost always be the down lineman. McCoy's attacking of the weakside 'A' gap makes the strongside 'A' gap the 'outside' check for Baas - as seen at 'C'.
'C' is Adrian Clayborn attacking the strongside 'A'. As McCoy is the down lineman, Baas first has to take him; but after the double team, he checks his 'outside', peeling off and picking up Clayborn as part of a doubleteam with Chris Snee (as Clayborn is Snee's inside check). As Baas did, Snee forces Clayborn to stay over Baas, before checking his own outside gap at 'D' - Ronde Barber's blitz. Snee picks up Ronde, with doubleteam help from Locklear; Locklear forces Ronde to stay over Snee, before checking his own outside gap at 'E' (getting deja vu yet?). At 'E', Lavonte David has looped all the way across the formation, coming down into Locklear. I do have to criticise David here - rather than attacking the strongside 'C' gap, David appears to come down directly heads up on Locklear, and even seems to pause in anticipation of contact.
While I'm being critical, I'll criticise one of my biggest issues with this blitzing, stunting, looping scheme we run. Simply, it takes too long: McCoy, Clayborn and Ronde are all pretty much stacked on top of one another - Ronde needs to wait for some space before he's even got somewhere to attack, or else he'd be at risk of running into Clayborn. Likewise, David is looping across four linemen. The time it takes to get for Barber or David just to get to the LOS allows the Giants to execute zone-based pass-pro schemes by giving them the time to check peel off to cover their outside gaps - if the Bucs were rushing straight ahead, they would not have time to check both inside and outside gaps, and either they would have had to have audibled into a different protection scheme, or else there would have been cracks along the O-line for the Bucs to exploit. Instead, the time it took for the blitz to unfold failed to take advantage of the scheme the Giants used, while similarly giving Eli Manning enough time to find the open receiver.
Two more points to be made on the rush and blocking of this play: at point 'F', it looked to me initially if the other Bennett had been left in to block, and had blocked Watson well; but on further review, you can see Bennett turning his body towards Eli after the first few beats of the play. This suggests to me that Bennett was meant to be releasing into a route, but instead Watson pressed and blocked him at the line, and either he couldn't get off to run his route, or his route was meant to be a quick hitch or spot (as a checkdown), but Watson was all over him and preventing him ever being a viable option for Eli. So, Watson gets a smiley-face sticker on his wall chart for this play.
The other point is unmarked in the diagram, but it concerns the one blitzer not yet mentioned: Mark Barron. You see, when Bennett (Michael, not Martellus) bullrushed Beatty and drew Brown across, it left the 'C' gap completely unprotected; and as the rule on this protection scheme appears to be 'in-out check', Locklear sees David looping around, and locks in on him as being the rusher sent to attack his outside gap. Had he looked wider, or been looking outside from the beginning, he might have seen Barron coming completely unblocked, and as Bennett had drawn Brown away from that side of the field, Barron has nothing between him and the quarterback:
So why wasn't this a sack? For that, we need to turn to the routes and coverage.
Routes & Coverage
Almost all playbooks will feature passing plays which have some sort of mirroring aspect - it could be that it's just the two outside receivers who run mirrored routes, or possibly two checkdowns/underneath routes coming on either side of the play from the tight end, the slot our out the backfield, or even the entire play mirrored, with, say a curl/flat combo on either side of the field. On this particular play, though it might not seem it from the diagram above, I believe this is a case of to mirrored outside routes, with the slot receiver running his own route in the middle.
We'll begin with that slot receiver, Victor Cruz, at point 'A'. All three rotues (we'll discard Bennett, as Watson had him locked up) begin in the same way - attacking the hip of their covering defender before cutting in the opposite direction. Both outside receivers 'attack' (i.e. step hard towards) the inside hip of their defenders before releasing outside, whereas Cruz attacks the outside hip of Wright before releasing inside of him. Attacking Wright in this way achieves its desire results, causing the corner to step to the outside while putting his hands up to potentially press Cruz. Cruz, however, cuts back inside, and, with Wright over-committing to the outside, gets a free release off the line, and leaves Wright trailing behind him for the rest of the route, though he soon pulls up as the ball's already been thrown to Nicks.
As I mentioned above, I believe that the two outside routes on this play are mirrored, even though they might not appear as such: this is because, I suspect, both routes have been called in as vertical 'read' routes - the kind that Freeman and Jackson appeared to be unable to execute earlier. As a result, I'll take 'B' and 'C' together, to demonstrate the difference. As mentioned above, both Barden and Nicks attack the inside hips of their defenders, before releasing outside. From a CB's perspective, you want your receivers to be getting an outside release in a cover one (and, as you can see diagrammed, this play does have a one-high shell, with Black backpedalling into the deep middle at the snap).
The reason why is simple: the single high safety has a LOT of field to cover on his own. If the receivers get inside release, they'd basically have the corners outside of them, and a LOT of green inside of them - with just one safety expecting to cover all of it. If you get two receivers managing to get inside of a one-high shell, and the corners are trailing, then the safety has to pick which one to cover - and leave the other one wide open. Instead, corners will use the sideline as effectively an outside defender, giving the quarterbacks a very slim window between corner and sideline in which to throw to, while leaving the safety over the top in case one of the corners gets burnt, or to help out with any inside receivers (such as tight ends) who might get off their linebackers.
It's that 'getting burnt' part that's particularly important here. The receivers are going where the corners want them to go, up the outside, but they don't want to give them a clean release - hence the attacking of the inside hip. Both receivers attack the inside hip, release up the outside, and then, importantly, both turn to look at the quarterback at the same point (around 10-12 yards from the LOS); at this point, their routes differ, but I argue that it's still the same route - a go read. The difference is McDonald and Talib are playing their receivers differently - with McDonald playing his much better than Talib does Nicks - and so present different keys to the receivers. On these type of vertical routes, the keys are typically this: if the corner is above you, release inside, or, as is the case here, come back down towards the QB; if the corner is behind you, keep going downfield.
Talib had been having a bad day against Nicks - as excellently detailed by Sander at the time - and as seen in this GIF, Talib is firstly wrong-footed by Nicks attacking his inside hip, and then reacts by being too aggressive, trying to put his hands on Nicks to press him.
Between the two factors, this gives Nicks a relatively clean release off the line - and, as he is behind the corner, he continues downfield as would conventionally be the read on this type of route.
Let's compare how McDonald and Talib play their respective receivers:
As you can see in both the screencap above, and the GIF above that, Nicks is releasing outside Talib, who is in bad position as he tries to get his hands on the receiver. Note in both you can see he keeps his hips facing upfield, towards his own endzone, until Nicks is getting past him. By direct comparison, you can see McDonald is not being overly aggressive, keeping his hands by his sides, but more importantly has his outside foot back and is opening his hips up towards the sideline. This keeps McDonald in a better position to cover Barden, and he is able to stay 'over' Barden for the entire route, while Talib is having to play catch up to Nicks pretty much all the way downfield.
There's a little bit of hands fighting at the top of Barden's route, but the point is he has no option but to turn back towards Eli when he gets to 10 yards - whereas Nicks is free to continue upfield. Manning makes the same read, and so throws over the top of Nicks (who, as Sander notes, has gotten separation due to Talib turning his head too early and slowing down), knowing his receiver will be there to collect it in his arms.
You can see the how the two different keys presented by McDonald and Talib effect the reads the receivers made in this screen cap:
The notes on the screen cap tell it all: Nicks gets the ball with nothing in front him, catches the ball 22 yards from the LOS, adds another 28 yards on the ground as Talib loses his footing and trips over before Black saves the touchdown.
The Giants call a time out after the completion, giving them 1:20 left on the clock. Andre Brown runs it but stops just short of the goal line, knowing that the Bucs, with only one touchdown left (one having had to be burnt because the playclock was again winding down to :00 in the third quarter), would have to let the clock run off. The Giants then waltz into the endzone, letting the Bucs get the ball back with 25 seconds left. After one successful completion, there is a downfield catch by Mike Williams which, after review, is overturned. (For what it's worth, if the rule is that Williams had to get both feet on the ground and THEN make another 'football move', then it was fairly overturned - the ball was jarred loose after the second foot touched the ground but before the third. Still, I always thought it was just two steps and then possession is established, not two steps PLUS an additional football move, but I'll bow to Mike Pereira's knowledge on this occasion.) With little time left on the clock, Free throws on the run, misses Dallas Clark completely and is picked off, allowing for the most famous kneel down in years.
So, why was this the key play? Simply put, this completion put the pressure on the Bucs to score - whereas an incompletion would have kept the pressure on the Giants. Remember, this was on 1st & 15, NOT 1st & 10. Now, it may be surprising that Talib played this worse than McDonald did when you consider how their respective careers have gone, though Talib does have something of a reputation for over-aggressive play (which bites him in the backside too often, as it does here). Still, imagine in this situation that Darrelle Revis was covering the best outside receiver on the field, something we'll get the pleasure of watching this season. Revis is not going to make the kind of mistakes Talib commits here (and before someone says "oh, but McDonald didn't make those mistakes", covering Ramses Barden is not the same as covering Hakeem Nicks.)
Let's say Revis, or any premier corner, had played Nicks well and forced Nicks back in - the Giants would likely have saved their time out until they were further down the field, so the Giants would still be on second down, scrambling to get to the line, all the while the clock getting run down and the pressure being amped up. But let's go even further - let's say the corner would not just have forced Nicks back towards the quarterback rather than down the field, but covered him too closely to make this throw. Manning would have just thrown to Cruz, who had shaken Eric Wright easily, correct?
Nope. If the corner on this side had locked up Nicks, then the next down would have been second-and-very-long, and would have likely either forced the Giants to burn a timeout way back in their own territory, or would have run down a good thirty seconds off the clock. Remember how Mark Barron got free on the blitz? Want to know how close he got to a sack?
This close. And that's with Barron having already pulled up to try and jump and swat down the ball.
That's the difference a Darrelle Revis-caliber corner makes, and shows why Schiano was so desperate for him. This is the key play because it put the Giants in position to win, but it also is a great example of showing how these blitzes fail to get home when your on-island corners get burnt. It's that microsecond difference between a first and ten at the Tampa 11, and a 2nd & 24 at the New York 30. It's the difference between putting pressure on an already thrice-picked Eli to make desperate throws or accept overtime, and forcing Josh Freeman to try and put the team on his back with bad results just like in 2011. It was the difference between starting the season 2-0 and 1-1. And that is why this is the key play.
After doing two defensive plays for the first two weeks of the season, I'll be looking at the worst offensive performance of the year next time I climb up the rigging (yes, I love this piratey theme too much) to bring you the View from the Crow's Nest.